The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not have the authority to regulate limits to carbon emissions from coal plants, in a case that may have significant repercussions on the U.S. government’s ability to pursue its climate agenda.
In a statement following the release of the decision, President Biden called the ruling “another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards.”
In 2015, under the Obama administration, the EPA implemented the Clean Power Plan to regulate limits for CO2 emissions from coal and natural gas power plants, using its authority under the Clean Air Act, which allowed the agency to take actions to address air pollution problems. The move was designed to promote a shift away from coal to cleaner power sources, such as natural gas and renewables. The supreme court case was based on a challenge by West Virginia, one of the U.S.’ largest producers of coal, to the EPA’s initiative.
In its 6-3 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court found that the EPA did not have Congressional authority to devise emissions caps to promote a shift from high-emissions to low-emissions energy generation sources, and that the federal agency had not been granted authority by Congress to implement regulations with such “economic and political significance.” Roberts wrote:
“EPA claimed to discover an unheralded power representing a transformative expansion of its regulatory authority in the vague language of a long-extant, but rarely used, statute designed as a gap filler. That discovery allowed it to adopt a regulatory program that Congress had conspicuously declined to enact itself. “
President Biden has made climate action a centerpiece of his administration’s focus, starting with returning the U.S. to the Paris Agreement on his first day in office, and committing the nation to significant emissions reduction targets, along with numerous initiatives to transition major emitting economic sectors to cleaner alternatives, and to increase corporate transparency on environmental impact and risks.
Given the major economic implications of the actions required to transition industries and sectors to align with the country’s climate goals, the ruling puts at risk the government’s ability to carry out many of its initiatives through federal agencies.
Following the ruling, sustainability-focused groups expressed concerns on the decision’s potential impact.
Aron Cramer, President and CEO at sustainable business network BSR, published a statement warning that the decision “undermines the US federal government’s ability to take decisive action to combat dangerous climate change.”
“Restricting the ability of the EPA, the main environmental regulator in the US, means that the United States will not be able to take steps necessary to shift to a clean energy economy. Signs of further restrictions on other science-based steps to address environmental and other questions are also very troubling.”
Mindy Lubber, CEO and President of sustainability-focused nonprofit Ceres wrote that the decision “endangers our country’s ability to effectively confront the climate crisis, the greatest economic, environmental, and humanitarian threat of our time.”
“The climate crisis requires ambitious action from both the private and public sectors, and from all levels of government, and this decision threatens our country’s ability to confront this crisis at the pace and scale science says is necessary.”
In his statement, President Biden pledged to review the decision and to work with federal agencies to find ways under federal law to “continue protecting Americans from harmful pollution, including pollution that causes climate change.”
“I will take action. My Administration will continue using lawful executive authority, including the EPA’s legally-upheld authorities, to keep our air clean, protect public health, and tackle the climate crisis. We will work with states and cities to pass and uphold laws that protect their citizens. And we will keep pushing for additional Congressional action, so that Americans can fully seize the economic opportunities, cost-saving benefits, and security of a clean energy future.”